09.12.2003 12:00 PM
FCC approves cable compatibility rules

The FCC has approved new technical standards designed to make future digital television receivers more compatible with digital cable television systems. When implemented, the goal is for digital cable subscribers to be able to plug directly into new home receivers without the need of a set-top box.

Under the new rules, set-top boxes would eventually give way to plug-in conditional-access “smart cards” that control which programs a subscriber is allowed to watch. Subscribers insert the card provided by their cable operator into a slot in the digital receiver to unscramble cable signals.



Under the new rules, set-top boxes such as the Samsung DSR 9500 would eventually give way to plug-in conditional-access “smart cards” that control which programs a subscriber is allowed to watch.

The new standard stems from an agreement last year between the cable industry, which included seven cable operators such as Comcast and AOL Time Warner and the consumer electronics industry, including 14 TV set manufacturers such as Sony and Zenith (LG Electronics).

Although the so-called “plug and play” standard has been aggressively promoted by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) as a way to simplify digital television installations, the near term effect of the FCC ruling will be minimal for most digital cable subscribers.

That’s because the FCC ruling still leaves key issues unresolved.

One is interactivity, a key function of most new digital set-top boxes and the basis of popular marketing features for many cable operators. Cable and consumer electronics manufacturers are still attempting to set technical standards for “interactive” or two-way services, such as video-on-demand, electronic programming guides and some pay-per-view features. Until these new standards are implemented, digital subscribers will continue to need set-top boxes in order to use these popular and profitable services.

Another unresolved issue is copyright protection. In its ruling last week, the FCC did not address the issue of the “broadcast flag,” a technology that could restrict the home recording of certain programs. However, the standard that was approved last week disallows home viewers from making permanent copies of pay-per-view programming--a restriction that will come as a nasty surprise to many unsuspecting prospective DTV buyers.

For more information visit www.fcc.gov and www.ce.org.

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